Monday, 31 December 2007

Love, Life and Folk

I don't think there's going to be time for proper thinky academicky type blog posts this holiday after all, since I'm going back to uni on Friday and I still have acres of work to do. But I shall visit my friends' blogs and I shall do a proper update, if a brief one, rather than just whinging like I did in my last post.

I'm back with my boyfriend from nearly six years ago. His name's Jon; he's nearly 24; he's a programmer for Here we are back in 2002:

Other local news.... I got confirmed a month before Christmas. That was very special. (That sounded sarcastic, wholly unintentional.)

I went to see The Imagined Village, a project - including Billy Bragg, Martin and Eliza Carthy, Benjamin Zephaniah and various people - combining traditional folk and world music for a multicultural Britain in exciting and innovative ways. Benjamin Zephaniah's modern-day rap version of Tam Lin was a little disconcerting at first but their version of Cold Haily Windy Night, dare I say it, trumped even Steeleye Span.

Last term I did a Middle English Poetry course, focusing on The Knight's Tale, Piers Plowman Passus XVIII and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Fitt IV. I also developed a positive obsession with Middle English language and Medieval Literature. And I'm so happy now, I have so much of it to read, should I ever have the leisure. I'm also happy to have found my "niche" in English Literature studies. Everyone seems to have a particular period that they're interested in, and now I have mine. I also started attending Old English Reading Group, reading Anglo Saxon riddles, which I find terribly difficult. It's fun too, though, because we eat biscuits and Jenny is very patient and encouraging.

I have a massive essay to write. Not massive in terms of length, but in terms of work involved, and it's worth 80% of my Middle English Poetry mark, which counts toward my final degree. All scary stuff. Which I guess is why I'm procrastinating by hiding under my duvet and watching House all day.

Monday, 17 December 2007

A Late-Night Case of the Blahs

I came home for the holidays this evening. I have been reading Ted Hughes in bed, and am overcome with the urge to write poems. And yet I can’t, and, believe it or not, I am in tears for it. It’s been months and months since I wrote a poem. I’m turning the half-finished modernisation of The Rape of Lucrece that I wrote last year into a play script, and I’m typing out extracts of my thirteen-year-old diaries to be drastically edited and become a Jacqueline Wilson-esque diary-novel. But I only write a little for both projects now and then. Perhaps I’ll finish them, but I’ve realised not much will happen after that.

I am consumed now with a longing for poetry. But I can’t write it anymore, because I know that nothing I write is any good. And nothing I write will be any good because I don’t "get it" somehow. Kind people will take time out to critique and will tell me all the things I need to cut out. But it’s somehow not my poem anymore. My poem, imperfect as it undoubtedly was, was finished, because it reached the level of my comprehension, my "best," as it were, at the time I wrote it. The moment has passed. Any more interference and it’s not mine. I am unable to learn from critique. I am too stupid. And that truly breaks my heart, but there it is. So I have resolved to write only for myself. I will write my bad poems and show them to nobody. I will give birth to my deformed babies and I will love them, and everyone else can fuck off. I really thought I would publish poetry, properly, one day. With adulthood comes reality checks and I am relinquishing that dream, painfully. I seem to be relinquishing lots of dreams. I have traded my imaginary intellectual poet-giant Ted Hughes husband for a computer programmer, who looks anorexic and shares next to none of my interests, but whom I think I love. I am slowly learning to look forward to a more realistic future, though it’s depressingly ordinary.

I am getting old. In one day and ten minutes I shall be twenty, which is half way to forty.
I wonder if anyone reads this anymore. I doubt it. I hardly update often and I’ve been shamefully neglectful of friends’ blogs. I will go through my blogroll this holiday, and write another post with a proper update rather than whining. But it doesn’t really matter. Again, I’m writing for myself. Such egotism! I remember being mortally offended when my mother referred to my writing as a "hobby." Such a trivialising word for what then was my life. Now I guess it is a hobby, really. How depressing. This post is quite depressing. But I shan’t apologise for it. I write for myself. If you don’t like it, there are lots of other sites on the internet.

Ah, blog, I have missed you. Only really time to copy-paste my essays in during term-time. But it isn’t term-time now so I hope to do some proper blogging (and blog-reading/commenting) over the next few weeks, along with much reading and admin and other odds and ends. Not that time is in abundance now! But at uni I seem to have no time at all: it vanishes in a haze of study, extra-curricular stuff and pissing about. As ever, I lament my own lack of discipline and productivity. Another reason why I’m no proper writer. So much time wasted, so much writing and reading and self-selected study I want to do, but don’t, for some reason. And now I really feel motivated to write, and I’ve accidentally left my bloody folder with all my notes at university. I also forgot my pink cardigan, which I am sorely missing.

It’s been too long since I’ve read Hughes. Such force and such beauty and such horror. Amazing. And yet so frustrating: I have poems like that in me. I have a story to tell. I have my own horror. I have a whole mythology. And I have no way of getting any of it onto paper! It’s buried too deep at the moment: I can’t access it. All I have right now is an image of an owl, a furious owl with a bleeding worm in its beak. Nice. Do worms bleed? I wouldn’t be so sadistic as to cut one up and see. Never mind.

I have lots to write about. It’s been months. It’ll have to wait until later, though. I am very sleepy, very sleep-deprived. I can’t talk about sensible things, only the crap that spills from head to fingers to keyboard. My keyboard has a key missing. My fingers are cut and burnt, my hair is greasy, my glasses are broken and scratch the bridge of my nose. I am deeply unattractive, a fact which my vanity will never stop railing against. And my head… well. I stopped taking my meds these last couple of weeks because I was so fed up with the weight gain. Much craziness ensued. Vague memories of talking to a hedge. I’m taking them again over Christmas because if anything goes wrong at home then I’m screwed. In January, I have four options:

1. Take my meds and try to overcome my exercise phobia. Find a way to go to the gym without crying. (Fairly difficult, as I cry just thinking about it.) I hate crying in public. So - problematic, and unpleasant.
2. Try and do without meds. - Fucking scary.
3. Start on lithium, which is the only one which won’t make me gain weight but is also really fucking toxic and can have all sorts of complications. Plus if I overdose I’ve had it, and I do have a bit of a history there. So - dangerous.
4. Take meds, be fat and put up with it. What I’ve been doing so far. - Not working.
Eeee, bed time, I think. Or rather, turn off laptop and attempt sleep time. More later.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Homeric Heroics

What are the problems with the term “heroic code?”

Before we can examine the problems with the term “heroic code,” we must first seek a definition. Perhaps this itself is the first problem, as “heroic code” is a complex and multi-faceted term. It describes a series of laws or guidelines for behaviour which are, by definition, unwritten, as they are assumed to be understood by those to whom they apply. This makes it difficult to pinpoint an exact definition. Generally, though, the guidelines of the “heroic code,” concerning what is acceptable and praiseworthy behaviour for the Homeric warrior-kings, are centred on notions of justice and masculinity. The nearest modern equivalent of some aspects of the Homeric code concerning justice would perhaps be our own unwritten codes of what we might call “fair play” or “common decency,” like those written down in the Geneva Convention. Less formalised examples would be “don’t kick a man when he’s down,” or even “don’t kick a man in the balls.”[1]

The “heroic code” is much more complex than this, however, and this complexity can present problems. The Homeric “heroic code” is obsessive about notions of masculinity. This is apparent on examination of the Greek text: as Clarke writes, “The Homeric equivalent to our word ‘heroism’” would be agēnoriē literally meaning “having abundant or excessive manhood.”[2] The antithesis of this in the Iliad is the character of Paris. Not only does he break the code by running off with Menelaus’ wife, his effeminacy is constantly mocked. A key example of this is his duel with Menelaus in Book 3: his exotic dress[3] seems to be linked with his losing the fight.

The “heroic code” is also concerned with piety and reverence for the gods. Agamemnon breaks the code when he insults Chyrses, Apollo’s priest, by refusing to return his daughter. This rejection of a supplication is duly punished with a plague. Diomedes, on the other hand, upholds the code by refusing Sthenelus’ suggestion of retreat in Book 5: not only does he display courage in battle but he honours his commitment to Athene. Silk affirms that the heroic ideology is “celebrated and affirmed by the poem, in that it is what the heroes in general live by, while the poem unquestionably celebrates them.”[4] I disagree that the heroes of the Iliad are always celebrated: Agamemnon, for example, causes all sorts of trouble by refusing to give up Chryseis and then taking Briseis from Achilles. The heroes are only condemned, however, when they break the code, so it is undoubtedly true that the code itself is endorsed by the Iliad.

Several problems with the term “heroic code” are of a temporal nature. In a sense, the term is archaic: the “heroes” to whom it applies are warrior-kings who were obsolete in Homer’s time. They are largely a product of Homer’s contemporaries’ belief in the decline of mankind, and their looking back to a so-called “golden age.” Silk goes so far as to say that the Homeric heroes “are not men like us” but are “remote from ordinary humanity” and “mightier.”[5] Unlike Homer’s contemporaries, “they have the opportunity, the ability and the courage” to risk their lives for glory.[6] While Homer’s contemporaries seem to have aspired to the values of the “heroic code,” it was not something that they had a notion of explicitly. Paradoxically, then, the term “heroic code” is simultaneously archaic and too modern, because it is an invention of modern scholarship.

The term’s being essentially a modern one is deeply problematic because there is a danger of its being interpreted according to modern ideas of heroism. Modern heroism is largely concerned with the “greater good:” it carries connotations of individual sacrifice to benefit other people. The Homeric heroes’ going off to fight the Trojan War clearly does not fit in with this concept: such a war would have had enormous social and economic consequences for all nations involved. It would result in a tremendous number of bereaved families and a plethora of widows and unmarried women, which would later cause a dramatic decrease in population. The Homeric heroes do not fight to benefit others, but rather to gain spoils from war and glory for themselves. As Clarke writes, they are essentially “driven to action by a need for social validation: status, respect, honour in the eyes of other men.”[7] The Homeric “hero” is not a hero is modern terms at all: Clarke describes him as “defined as such by one thing alone: his membership of a specific generation or race of men, belonging at a particular point among the scale of human history.”[8] Perhaps, then, a better name for the “heroic code” would be the “Homeric warrior code.”

To prove this point further, I have chosen three examples from the Iliad, in which a character behaves in a way which would seem to a modern reader to be breaking a code upholding ideals of heroism, but in which the character actually upholds the Homeric “heroic code.”

The first concerns Achilles’ withdrawal from the fighting and his refusal to return until the war is almost over. Although this is not due to cowardice, it seems to the modern reader essentially unheroic because Achilles is willing to allow hundreds of his comrades, and even Patroclus, to die without his intervention. Achilles’ refusal to accept Agamemnon’s bounteous compensation in Book 9 is likewise seen as breaking the “heroic code” by Ajax. Crotty explains that Ajax perceives Achilles to be breaking the aspect of the “heroic code” for which the Greek term is aidōs. Crotty describes aidōs as connected with shame and “the willingness to compromise and to accommodate others.”[9] He writes that it “curbs the individual’s egotistic demand that his merit be acknowledged and rewarded.”[10] This leads us, however, to the perspective from which we see that Achilles, in fact, keeps the “heroic code” in refusing to fight. Homer’s culture was founded on reciprocity, a system of honours and rewards. Achilles agreed to risk his life in someone else’s war in exchange for material and intangible tokens of respect. Agamemnon withheld both of these in his abduction of Achilles’ favourite and “prize,”[11] Briseis, as compensation for his own loss of Chyreis. The word “prize” in Greek is geras: booty publicly allocated and a sign of respect and worth. We can see in Achilles’ reply to Agamemnon’s offer his belief that Agamemnon has broken the code and he, Achilles, is upholding it in his subsequent refusal to co-operate with him: Achilles claims that “there was no gratitude given / for fighting incessantly forever against your enemies,”[12] and so Agamemnon, whom he describes as “wrapped forever in shamelessness,”[13] has “swindle(d)” him.[14] Silk summarises Achilles’ attitude perfectly: he refuses “not out of anti-heroic disaffection with heroic combat itself, but in heroic protest against the dishonour done to him.”[15] Achilles, then, is upholding the “heroic code” without behaving in what a modern reader would describe as a “heroic” manner.

Similarly, in Book 22, Hector’s insistence on duelling with Achilles, in spite of his parents’ pleas may not seem heroic to a modern reader. As Priam says, many people will grieve for Hector’s death, [16] and Priam himself, who has suffered so greatly, will suffer still further.[17] In this light, Hector’s decision seems selfish, and he himself seems cold-hearted. Both Priam’s tearing his hair out and Hecuba’s weeping[18] “could not move the spirit in Hector,” a phrase which, repeated, makes Hector seem even more unfeeling. The fact that Achilles is clearly stated to be more powerful[19] also makes Hector’s decision to fight him seem fairly stupid to a modern reader, but he is actually upholding the Homeric “heroic code.” As Crotty writes, “the code of the warrior” dictates that “whether he is to be victorious or defeated must have no effect on the dedication of his fighting or the intensity of his effort”[20]

Hector’s keeping of the “heroic code” again seems somewhat unheroic to the modern reader in Book 6. Andromache begs Hector not to fight, as he may well leave her a widow, when she’s lost all other family, and her son fatherless. [21] Again, in Andromache’s case, the cost of war is emphasised: her grief in Book 22 takes up over 60 lines. [22] Felson and Slatkin claim that, in this scene, “Homer gives priority to marital devotion over even filial or warrior bonds.”[23] I disagree: although Hector is presented in this scene as the “family man,” he still leaves his family to an uncertain fate and goes off to fight. This proves that, in Homeric warrior society, responsibility to war overrides responsibility to family. Although the thought of Andromache’s suffering after his death “troubles”[24] Hector and his prayer for his son[25] is deeply moving, Hector’s concerns for his family are overridden by the fact that he’d feel “deep shame”[26] if he didn’t fight. To a modern reader, this seems selfish, but in terms of the “heroic code,” it would be seen as noble. Crotty writes that this shame, aidōs, was a social pressure, “intended to ensure that members of the warrior society behave in accordance with that society’s codes.”[27]

Another instance of the inadequacy of the word “heroic” to describe the code because of its modern interpretation lies in the fact that heroism can be displayed by women just as much as men, and yet the “heroic code” applies only to men. It is thus extremely limited, as it applies generally only to a war situation and excludes not only women but the gods also, who live according to their own rules. Women are portrayed in Homer primarily as victims of war, as with the grief of Hecuba and Andromache in Book 22, and with Briseis’ lament for Patroclus, in which she recounts losing three brothers and her husband.[28] As Crotty writes, women are “powerless”[29] in the face of war. They share the greatest intimacy with the Homeric warriors because they do not present competition. The Homeric woman is merely “a part of the warrior’s tragic conception of himself.”[30] Andromache, for example, exists in the Iliad only in respect of how she relates to Hector: she is described in Book 6 as “his perfect wife.”[31] The nearest the Homeric woman gets to a “heroic code” is a code concerning notions of honour and fidelity. Fundamental to this is the character of Helen: she has transgressed this code in running of with Paris. Attitudes to her in later Greek writers are varied but treatment of her in the Iliad is surprisingly positive. Her behaviour is certainly not condoned but the reader is encouraged to join with Priam in blaming the gods[32] and she is portrayed as suitably repentant: she misses Menelaus,[33] reproaches herself[34] and calls herself a “slut.”[35] In Book 24, she declares: “I should have died before I came with (Paris).”[36] When Aphrodite calls her to sleep with him, she says it would be “too shameful”[37] (though she does, for fear of Aphrodite’s anger[38]). It is clear, then, that although women in the Iliad have their own codes of behaviour to keep to, they are excluded from the “heroic code,” which renders the term confusing to a modern reader, since women are as capable of heroism as men are.

My final problem with the term “heroic code” lies not in its name but in the concept it describes. This code of behaviour amongst the Homeric warriors, because it is unwritten and essentially undefined, is subject to interpretation: even within the Homeric definition of “heroic,” one man’s keeping it is another man’s breaking it. I have chosen two examples from the Iliad to demonstrate this.

The first concerns Achilles’ treatment of Hector’s corpse. The importance of the corpse in Homeric epic is apparent in the Iliad in Book 16, when Sarpedon’s corpse is teleported home, and in the effort made by Aphrodite and Apollo to protect and preserve Hector’s corpse. Achilles’ dragging the corpse behind his chariot, both in public and privately, is the greatest dishonour that Achilles can do to Hector and would have been seen by some as a breakage of the “heroic code.” Yet Achilles sees himself as keeping the code because it is his act of revenge for Patroclus’ death and therefore, in his eyes, a means of honouring his friend. We see this in Achilles’ speech in Book 23:

“All that I promised you in time past I am accomplishing,
that I would drag Hector here and give him to the dogs to feed on
and before your burning pyre to behead twelve glorious
children of the Trojans for my anger over your slaying.”[39]

A similar dual interpretation of the “heroic code” is possible in Book 10 with Diomedes’ and Odyseeus’ treatment of Dolon. Odysseus tells an implied lie with “let no thought of death be upon you,”[40] and Diomedes decapitates Dolon in the act of supplicating him.[41] Such behaviour seems in direct opposition to the values of the “heroic code,” and yet several devices are employed to soften this and even to present Diomedes and Odysseus as upholding the code. Dolon himself is portrayed as distinctly unattractive and unheroic: he begs to be spared and ransomed;[42] he betrays his comrades by providing information;[43] and he is described as physically ugly,[44] which is significant because the Greeks equated good looks with virtue. His fear of death is also emphasised, in such a manner as to inspire disdain rather than pathos:

“And Dolon stood still in terror
gibbering, as though through his mouth came the sound of his teeth’s chatter
in green fear.”[45]

It is also explicitly stated that Dolon’s death is necessary: Diomedes and Odysseus cannot risk leaving him alive if they are to prevent endangering their own men.[46]

In conclusion, then, the term “heroic code” is deeply problematic. This is partly due to the complex nature of the code itself, and the fact that it is assumed to be generally understood by those to whom it applies, rather than being written down. For this reason, it is extremely subjective. This subjectivity is rendered much more difficult by the application of the word “heroic” to describe the code, because the code can easily become confused with modern ideas of heroism. A modern understanding of heroism is centred on individual sacrifice for the benefit of others, which is different to and less complex than the system of values on which Homeric warrior society is based, and it is also more inclusive. Anybody can be heroic by the modern definition, while the Homeric “heroes” were a specific group of people. For this reason, I would like to repeat my suggestion that many of the problems with the term “heroic code” could be overcome if we replaced it with the term “Homeric warrior code.”


Crotty, K. (1994) The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Emilyn-Jones, C., Hardwick, L. and Purkis, J. (1999) Homer: Readings and Images, London: Gerald Duckworth and Co.
Fowler, R. (ed.) (2004) The Cambridge Companion to Homer, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lattimore, R. (trans.) (1951) The Iliad of Homer, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Silk, M. (2004) Homer: The Iliad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] James Templeman, in conversation.
[2] Clarke, “Manhood and Heroism” in Fowler, The Cambridge Companion to Homer, p. 80.
[3] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 109. (Book 3, lines 330-7)
[4] Silk, Homer: The Iliad, p. 84.
[5] Silk, Homer: The Iliad, p. 62.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Clarke, “Manhood and Heroism” in Fowler, The Cambridge Companion to Homer, p. 77.
[8] Clarke, “Manhood and Heroism” in Fowler, The Cambridge Companion to Homer, p. 78.
[9] Crotty, The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, p. 33.
[10] Crotty, The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, p. 33.
[11] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p.64. (Book 1, line 185)
[12] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p.206. (Book 9, line 316, 317)
[13] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 208. (Book 9, line 372)
[14] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 208. (Book 9, line 371)
[15] Silk, Homer: The Iliad, p. 62.
[16] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 436. (Book 22, line 54, 55)
[17] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 436-7. (Book 22, lines 59-65)
[18] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 437. (Book 22, lines 77-81)
[19] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 436. (Book 22, line 40)
[20] Crotty, The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, p. 42.
[21] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 164. (Book 6, lines 404-39)
[22] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 447-449. (Book 22, lines 451-515)
[23] Felson and Slatkin, “Gender and Homeric Epic” in Fowler, The Cambridge Companion to Homer, p. 100.
[24] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 165. (Book 6, line 454)
[25] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 165-6. (Book 6, lines 476-81)
[26] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 165. (Book 6, line 441)
[27] Crotty, The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, p. 30.
[28] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 400. (Book 19, lines 291-4)
[29] Crotty, The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, p. 86.
[30] Crotty, The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, p. 86.
[31] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 163. (Book 6, line 162)
[32] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 104. (Book 3, line 164, 165)
[33] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 104. (Book 3, lines 139-40)
[34] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 104-5. (Book 3, lines 172-6)
[35] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 105. (Book 3, line 180)
[36] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 495. (Book 24, line 764)
[37] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 111. (Book 3, line 410)
[38] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 111. (Book 3, line 418)
[39] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 450. (Book 23, lines 20-24)
[40] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 228. (Book 10, lines 383)
[41] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 230. (Book 10, lines 454-7)
[42] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 228. (Book 10, lines 378-81)
[43] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 229-30. (Book 10, lines 412-445)
[44] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 226. (Book 10, line 316)
[45] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 228. (Book 10, lines 374-6)
[46] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 230. (Book 10, lines 449-53)

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Executive Transvestites

“What shall I call thee when thou art a man?” (As You Like It)
How fixed is identity in the plays?

The two plays I have chosen to discuss in relation to this question are As You Like It and Twelfth Night. These two plays have some striking similarities in terms of plot, both exploring identity and its fluidity in terms of gender with cross-dressing heroines, and more generally with other disguises, such as Celia as Aliena in As You Like It and Feste as Sir Topas in Twelfth Night. This is reflected in terms of the play’s titles: Twelfth Night’s alternate title is What You Will, meaning essentially the same as As You Like It. Both As You Like It and What You Will place emphasis on the identity of the individual “you” and the idea of choice, which can be read as a sense of control over the altering of one’s own self.

Gender is fundamental to an individual’s identity, and the cross-dressing heroines of both plays guarantee that this is by no means fixed. As Howard writes, this transvestitism “makes problematic how natural are the gender distinctions that supposedly separate man from woman.”[1] This is complicated further by the fact that, in Elizabethan theatre, female characters were played by boys. Gender distinctions blur still further in As You Like It, Howard explains: in the 1590s, Shakespeare wrote four plays featuring cross-dressing women: Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. Of these, Rosalind’s case is “arguably the most complicated”[2] because she’s Rosalind pretending to be Ganymede pretending to be Rosalind. “A woman disguised as a man thus makes her own identity into a fiction she performs!”[3]

This transformation of identity achieved through transcendence of gender has both advantages and disadvantages for Rosalind and Viola. It appears at first glance that Viola’s transvestitism is painful and Rosalind’s joyful, but the situation is actually far more complicated than that. Both adopt “the privileges as well as the dress of the supposedly superior sex”[4] but they are paralysed as well as freed by their new identities. They are left unable to speak their true feelings, other than in equivocation or asides, and are prevented from pursuing their own romantic interests. For Viola this is doubly hard, as she is forced to court another woman on behalf of the man she loves. Nevertheless, particularly in As You Like It, there is an atmosphere of adventure, of venturing into new territory in terms of selfhood. As Palfrey writes, disguise enables characters to “more fully realise their own possibilities and more faithfully express their ‘true selves.’”[5]

There is danger in this, however: identity can become so fluid that characters can become confused as to who they actually are, or can seem to become the persona they enact. As Viola says, “I am not what I am.” (3.1.129-135) Palfrey writes that disguise can make it difficult to define “where a particular character begins and ends.”[6] The boundaries between self and other, between the true identity and assumed disguise, merge. For this reason, disguise is “a challenge to the very idea of coherent individuality.”[7] Shakespeare’s exploration of disguise in terms of identity is fuelled by the possibility, in Malcolmson’s words, “that external forms can determine internal states;”[8] or, put more simply by Howard, “clothes here make the man – or woman.”[9] It is perhaps no accident then, that when Viola asks the Captain to help her dress as a man, her words “Conceal me what I am” (1.2.49) sound more like “Conceal from me what I am.”

In this case, then identity is both fixed and not fixed: the individual in disguise seems almost to split into two. For Viola, this also is extremely painful. She calls herself “poor monster” (2.2.32) because she has become, effectively, both male and female:

“As I am man,
My state is desperate for my master’s love.
As I am woman, now, alas the day,
What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!” (2.2.34-7, my italics)

Shakespeare explores this further in Twelfth Night through the phenomenon of male and female twins. In the final scene, in which the twins confront one another while Viola is still dressed as Cesario, Shakespeare forces the audience to see this duality of self visually. As Orsino remarks:

“One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons,
A natural perspective that is and is not” (5.1.208-9)

Shakespeare deliberately drags this out, as the twins grope through their family history in order to place themselves. (5.1.208-256) Shakespeare demonstrates then, that identity is only fluid to a certain degree, and experimentation comes at a cost.

The characters in Twelfth Night and As You Like It who adopt transvestite disguises experiment not only with their own identities but with those of other characters, particularly those with whom they are romantically involved. This is because identity is inseparable from sexuality. Shakespeare highlights this to his audience in As You Like It with Rosalind’s choice of name. Ganymede was a boy desired by Jupiter and taken to Mount Olympus to be his cupbearer and so, as Howard writes, the name “had long-standing associations with homo-erotic love.”[10] In the final scene, though, “Rosalind reassumes her female clothes and Ganymede disappears,”[11] and so the play ends with the traditional union of man and woman – except, of course, that on the Elizabethan stage, Rosalind was played by a boy. For Viola and Orsino, this is even more subversive: Viola does not change her clothes and Orsino continues to call her Cesario. Both Olivia in Twelfth Night and Phoebe in As You Like It pursue women in disguise as men, and as Howard writes, it is unclear whether each desires “the man she thinks she sees or the woman beneath.”[12] However, we must remember that “in the early modern period, people were not assumed, as they often are today, to have a fixed sexual identity,”[13] to be heterosexual or homosexual, so these homosexual overtones are not perhaps so significant in terms of identity as they would be in a modern play.

Of course, identity is multi-faceted and does not rely purely on gender or sexuality. It is also worth exploring its fluidity in terms of status. Social mobility is something of which Shakespeare would have been acutely aware: between 1500 and 1700, the population doubled but the upper classes trebled.[14] Perhaps the fullest examination of this lies in the character of Malvolio. His fantasies are of power, extravagance and fulfillment of lust: he imagines himself: “sitting in (his) state” in a “branched velvet gown” whilst “having come from a day-bed where (he has) left Olivia sleeping.” (2.5.39-44) All this starkly demonstrates his Puritanical hypocrisy, for which he is punished and humiliated. This would seem to suggest that, in Shakespeare’s plays, status is fixed, and aspiration is condemned. However, closer examination reveals that this is not the case. Olivia would have married the servant Cesario. Shakespeare himself was socially mobile: as Greenblatt reminds us, he was the son of a glover, who acquired a coat of arms and second largest house in Stratford.[15] As Malcolmson writes, it is not Malvolio’s ambition which is punished, but rather his “desire to establish his superiority and to impose his will on others.”[16]

In conclusion, then, Shakespeare’s love of experimentation with identity as a concept is ubiquitous in these two plays. Both plots are essentially based on cross-gender disguises, and Twelfth Night is also full of mistaken identities used for comic purposes. This fluidity of identity is not complete, however: it leads to a fractioning of the self, confusion and heartache in general. This is not only the case for Viola: Celia’s choice of a name, Aliena, reflects her sense of alienation, functioning in a society without a fixed identity. Experimentation with gender identity leads to experimentation with sexual identity, which can be both exciting and confusing. The self in these plays can be warped and explored, but it cannot ultimately be escaped.

Callaghan, D. ‘And all is semblative a woman’s part:’ Body Politics and Twelfth Night in White, R. S. (ed.) Twelfth Night (London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1996)
Greenblatt, S. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980).
Greenblatt, S., Cohen, W., Howard, J. E and Maus, K. E. (eds.) The Norton Shakespeare (New York: W. W. Norton and Co. Ltd., 1997).
Malcolmson, C. ‘What You Will:’ Social Mobility and Gender in Twelfth Night in White, R. S. (ed.) Twelfth Night (London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1996)
Palfrey, S. Doing Shakespeare (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2005).

[1] J.E. Howard in Stephen Greenblatt, The Norton Shakespeare, p. 1595.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Simon Palfrey, Doing Shakespeare, p. 200.
[6] Simon Palfrey, Doing Shakespeare, p. 199.
[7] Simon Palfrey, Doing Shakespeare, p. 200.
[8] Malcolmson, C. Social Mobility and Gender in Twelfth Night, p. 170.
[9] J.E. Howard in Stephen Greenblatt, The Norton Shakespeare, p. 1595.
[10] J.E. Howard in Stephen Greenblatt, The Norton Shakespeare, p. 1596.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] J.E. Howard in Stephen Greenblatt, The Norton Shakespeare, p. 1597.
[14] Malcolmson, C. Social Mobility and Gender in Twelfth Night, p. 167.
[15] Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, p. 7.
[16] Malcolmson, C. Social Mobility and Gender in Twelfth Night, p. 178.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Why Were Women Attracted to Early Christianity?

Why Were Women Attracted to Early Christianity?

Christianity spread rapidly from the first century C.E. onwards, and many converts were women. We have numerous accounts of women hearing Christian teaching from missionaries, such as Paul, and being baptised. Examples include Lydia in Acts 16:12-16 and St. Thecla in Acts of Paul and Thecla 7-35.[1] The pagan critic Celsus in the second century C.E. describes Christianity as “a religion of women, children and slaves,”[2] which opens up the question of whether women were “disproportionately represented”[3] in Early Christianity. It is clear that Celsus was seeking to disparage Christianity by asserting that it was the choice of the intellectually inferior, and his bias must be considered when assessing the truth of his statement. In the book of Acts, the women who convert to Christianity are, Kraemer writes, “frequently free, aristocratic, affluent and respectable, if not also demonstrably educated and intelligent women.”[4] St. Luke, who is generally accepted to be the author of Acts, had the opposite intention of Celsus: to create a positive impression of Christianity by portraying it as the choice of the intellectually superior: he was biased also. Perhaps we would expect him, then, to omit female converts, since women were believed to be intellectually inferior to men in most cultures at that time. The fact that both Christians and pagans describe women converting to Christianity means that we can assume that Christianity was reasonably popular with women in the early centuries C.E.

Initially, it seems strange that Greco-Roman women would choose to abandon their pagan religion in favour of Christianity. As Pomeroy writes, in Greco-Roman society, “religion was the major sphere of public life in which women participated.”[5] Religion was also remarkably slow to change,[6] so we can deduce that women’s customs described centuries before the birth of Christ were still active in something similar to their original form. Likewise, the establishment of the Roman Empire did not necessarily stop them, as the Romans incorporated Greek religion into their own. For these reasons, it is of use to consider earlier Greek sources as well as those which date from the time of Christ and afterwards. Greco-Roman religious customs provided ample opportunity for women to be involved. Women carried out the Thesmophoria fertility ritual in honour of Demeter[7], and there were several other festival roles for women, largely based on age, such as making cakes, carrying procession items, dances and choral performances. For example, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata 641-47 reads:

“When I was seven, I was an arrephoros [a carrier of mystical objects]. At ten I made cake for Athena’s offering, and wore the saffron to be a bear for Artemis at Brauron. And once as a fair young girl, I was a kanephoros [basket-carrier]….”[8]

It is worth noting, however, that such roles were often reserved for the nobility and always for women and girls of unblemished reputation. Christianity, however, is largely focused around the forgiveness of sins, or the erasing of past transgressions, as if they never were. Women who were excluded from participating in Greco-Roman pagan religious events may have been inspired by early Christian figures such as Mary Magdalene, the ex-prostitute who found acceptance in Jesus (Luke 7:3-50) and went on to be significant in his ministry.

It may also be seen as surprising that Greco-Roman women, particularly those of high status, chose to convert to Christianity because their pagan religion seems to have offered more to which they could aspire, in terms of becoming priestesses. Evidence clearly shows that Greco-Roman society respected its priestesses enormously. The Leucippides (unmarried girl priestesses at sanctuary of Phoebe and Hilaeira at Amyclae, near Sparta) are described by Pausinas in his Guide to Greece 3.16.1-2 as “like the goddesses themselves.”[9] Likewise, a number of tombstones of priestesses have survived, praising them lavishly.[10] We also know that priestesses were called by their own name as a mark of respect, instead of being referred to by the significant man in their life (ie. “mother of…” or “wife of…” or “daughter of…”) as was customary.[11] The nearest Early Christian equivalent was the role of deaconess. Deaconesses are mentioned in Pliny’s Letters 10.96.8[12] and also in Romans 16:1, but we know little about them because, as Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy and Shapiro state, “many of the church fathers who wrote in those years had little interest in women except as martyrs or objects of theological debate.”[13] We do know, though, that a deaconess’ role was “to serve the orthodox church by assisting the priest in ministering to the sick and needy, counseling women, and even occasionally giving sermons.”[14] While deaconesses “must have held positions of significant authority,”[15] they were “by no means priestesses.”[16] It must be remembered, however, that priestesses were a very small minority.

It could be argued that, while Christian women did not have the celebrated status of a pagan priestess, all Christian women could have that closeness to the divine, as Christians believed that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross enabled everyone to have a personal and intimate relationship with God. The lack of a goddess in Christianity, like the Bona Dea[17] in Roman religion, could make it seem unlikely that women would want to convert, as one would assume that women would find it easier to relate to a goddess than a god or the male Jesus. However, the Christian God is not, in fact, male, but spirit, so effectively neither gender, or both. The Christian concept of God the Father is based on the Jewish one, but there are also passages in the Old Testament describing God as female. In Isaiah 42:14, God is “like a woman in labour” and, in Isaiah 49:15 and Isaiah 66:13, God is compared to a nursing mother. Early Christian converts may well have become acquainted with these texts, and comparing God to a woman is surely the greatest compliment that can be paid to the female sex.

Another reason that it may seem surprising that women were attracted to Early Christianity is the persecution that occurred before Constantine made Christianity fully legal in his Edict of Toleration in 311-12 CE.[18] Lefkowitz and Fant describe Christianity as “for the Romans, another foreign religion… to be regarded with suspicion.”[19] Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy and Shapiro write that women who converted “sometimes lost position and even families and lives through their involvement with their church.”[20] They must have been reminded of Luke 9:61-2, in which a man is called to follow Jesus, but asks first to say goodbye to his family. Jesus replies, “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God.” Perhaps they were comforted and encouraged also by Luke 6:22-23: “Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.”

It is possible that women were attracted to the excitement and danger of being a part of an illegal movement. Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy and Shapiro continue: “whether because of overt persecution or simply through the loathing of Christianity that came from stories about cannibalism and incest, only the lowliest or most privileged in Roman society could afford to openly and with impunity admit to being a Christian.”[21] Martyrdom was very much a possibility. There is evidence for a great number of female Christian martyrs, such as St. Perpetua at Carthage in 203 C.E., whose death is described in Acts of the Christian Martyrs 8.2-10, [22] and those whose death is recorded in Acts of the Christian Martyrs 22.[23] If the prospect of martyrdom were itself not unattractive enough, many women, like St. Perpetua, left behind children and saw their families suffer for their beliefs. We know, then, that whatever attracted women to Early Christianity must have been extraordinarily powerful, for them to face the prospect of martyrdom, and for many to endure it without backing down.

I propose that we look in the Christian message itself for Early Christianity’s appeal to women. To do this, I suggest we examine the gospels on which it was founded. As Kraemer writes, “great caution… must be exercised in the attempt to extract any reliable historical data about women from earliest Christian sources, especially literary works such as the canonical gospels.”[24] The Church in its first centuries was still deciding where it stood on the issue of women and Christian literature was still being edited and may not have been as we know it today in the New Testament. This does not, however, make the gospels in their current form valueless.

Stanton describes Jesus’ attitude to women in these gospels as “striking,”[25] and this is particularly the case in the gospel of Luke.[26] Luke’s gospel promotes unheard-of gender equality. It claims that Jesus included women among his disciples (Luke 8:1-3), and Stanton writes that, in fact, “a number of traditions show that Jesus was able to mix freely and naturally with women of all sorts and to accept them into his wider circle of followers.”[27] Luke’s gospel makes women a central part of the resurrection narrative: they the first to discover that Jesus had risen and it was to them that the angels appeared and announced the news (Luke 24:1-8). The story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10: 38-42 also demonstrates Jesus’ encouragement of women’s learning and not devoting themselves entirely to household tasks. Luke also employs a female-male parallelism throughout the gospel: between Zechariah and Mary (1:10-20, 26-38), Simeon and Anna (2:25-38), the centurion and the widow (7:1-7), and man with a hundred sheep and the woman with ten silver coins (15:4-10).[28] A similar pairing between men and women occurs in the book of Acts, also traditionally written by Luke.

Kraemer argues, though, that this pairing, instead of endorsing gender equality, is because of Luke’s “pervasive concern to demonstrate that Christian women are properly associated with and subordinated to men in accordance with Greco-Roman norms.”[29] She argues that Luke’s interest in women “may be deceptive” because D’Angelo has demonstrated that Luke’s stories about women are actually there to suit other agendas.[30] Even if this is the case, the female readers of the time would not have necessarily known that, and would have seen an acceptance of women in Luke’s portrayal of Jesus.

Whether or not women would have found a similar acceptance in the early Church is debatable. As Stanton writes, “the early church did not always follow the example of Jesus toward women.”[31] Records of the early Church are reasonably scarce because of persecution: much of what we have is Christian literature, such as what is now in the New Testament, and these may well have been subject to alteration. What we do have appears divided. On the one hand, Galatians 3:28 reads: “there is no difference… between men and women… you are all one in union with Jesus Christ,” and 1 Corinthians 7:4 reads: “a woman does not have authority over her own body; it belongs to her husband. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body; it is his wife’s,” thus promoting equality within marriage as well as generally.

On the other hand, this seems to be contradicted with “I wish you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of every woman is her husband” (1 Cor. 11:3). Some epistles, or some parts of the epistles, seem to endorse the suppression of women. 1 Timothy 2:8-12 reads: “In every church service I want the men to pray… women should learn in silence and all humility. I do not allow them to teach or to have authority over men: they must keep quiet,” and 1 Corinthians 14:33b reads: “In all the churches of the faithful, let women be silent in the congregation, for it is not appropriate for them to speak. They should be obedient, as the law states. If they want to learn something, they should ask their own husbands at home, for it is a disgrace for a woman to speak out in the congregation.” Some of the theology in the epistles seems to directly contradict Jesus’ attitudes in the gospels toward women. How women were treated in the early Church, then, remains something of a mystery, so we cannot know if this was part of the appeal.

In conclusion, in spite of there being several reasons why early Christianity would seem undesirable to women, most of these can be counteracted, at least in part. The treatment of women in the early Church is uncertain, but the gospels are clearly very positive about women and thus would have attractive for them. This essay has explored why early Christianity was attractive to women in particular, but it must be remembered that Christianity was attractive to women for many of the reasons that it was attractive to men. It offered the promise of Heaven, a joyful and unending afterlife: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Revelation 21:4).” In contrast, Roman concepts of the afterlife were varied and sometimes vague. Roman gods were also deeply fallible and their attitudes to humans ambiguous, while Christianity promised a perfect, loving god. The word “gospel” does, after all, mean “good news,” and it’s not surprising, then, that women as well as men were attracted to it.


Fantham, E., Foley, H. P., Kampen, N. B., Pomeroy, S. B. and Shapiro, H. A. (1994) Women in the Classical World: Image and Text, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Golden, M. and Toohey, P. (2003) Sex and Difference in Ancient Greece and Rome, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Green, J. B. (1995) The Theology of the Gospel of Luke, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kraemer, R. S. (1992) Her Share of the Blessings: Women’s Religions Among Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Greco-Roman World, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lefkowitz, M. R. and Fant, M. B, eds. (2005) Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A source book in translation, London: Gerald Duckworth and Co, Ltd.
Pomeroy, S. B. (1975) Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity, London: Pimlico.
Stanton, G. N. (1989) The Gospels and Jesus, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
The Holy Bible, New International Version.

Richard Hawley, Playing the Bear: Women in Classical Greek Religions, 30th October 2007.

[1] Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p. 311-12.
[2] Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings, p. 128.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings, p. 129.
[5] Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves, p. 75.
[6] Hawley, Playing the Bear, 30th October 2007.
[7] Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves, p. 77.
[8] Hawley, Playing the Bear, 30th October 2007.
[9] Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p. 301.
[10] Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p. 302-6.
[11] Hawley, Playing the Bear, 30th October 2007.
[12] Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy, Shapiro, Women in the Classical World, p. 383.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p. 291.
[18] Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy, Shapiro, Women in the Classical World, p. 383.
[19] Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p. 307.
[20] Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy, Shapiro, Women in the Classical World, p. 383.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p. 313-18.
[23] Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p. 318-23.
[24] Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings, p. 131.
[25] Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, p. 202.
[26] Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke, p. 91.
[27] Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, p. 202.
[28] Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke, p. 92-3.
[29] Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings, p. 129.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, p. 202.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Said Chaucer to Boccaccio

Show how a comparison with Boccaccio’s Il Teseida can add to your reading of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale.

When Chaucer rewrote Boccaccio’s Il Teseida for his Knight’s Tale, he made some fundamental alterations. As Burrow writes, Chaucer was “deeply impressed” by the poetry of Boccaccio, but there were also aspects “which he could or would not imitate.”[1] Chaucer’s positive and negative reactions to Boccaccio’s work “reveal a great deal about Chaucer himself, and also about the literary culture of England in his day.”[2] Chaucer’s additions and omissions tell us a great deal about his own interests and opinions, and the audience for which he was writing. They also reflect the interests and purposes of the different narrators in this multi-layered narrative: Chaucer the writer, Chaucer the pilgrim and the knight.

Observing the form and style of Il Teseida sheds new light on Chaucer’s choice of style for the Knight’s Tale. Il Teseida, Burrow writes, is “the first full-scale attempt by a vernacular writer to imitate Classical epic.”[3] Like Virgil’s Aeneid and Statius’ Thebiad, it comprises twelve books, and Boccaccio was keen to imitate “the epic feats of arms” with “high, epic style: invocations, long epic similes, catalogues of warriors, oratorical speeches” and other defining features of Classical epic.[4] Unlike any Classical epic, however, Il Teseida’s main plot is the conventionally Medieval romance of young love.

It was perhaps for this reason that Chaucer chose not to attempt to re-create the epic style in his Knight’s Tale. As Salter writes, he treats the story “predominantly, as a courtly romance.”[5] This is reflected in his compression of the first two books of Il Teseida, about Theseus’ conquests, into a mere two hundred lines. Burrow claims that Chaucer is typical of Middle English writers in his willingness to freely borrow ideas, stories and images from Classical literature, but refusal to follow its genre-system.[6] This perhaps reflects the tastes of an English audience. Ward writes that Chaucer meant the style of the Tales to be “above all things popular.”[7] The question is: popular with whom? Burrow claims that The Knight’s Tale is a tale of chivalry and a romance, aimed at the English courtly classes, while The Miller’s Tale, which has a similar plot but is funnier and cruder, was aimed at the lower classes.[8] However, it is unlikely that the lower classes, even if they were literate, would have had access to The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer wrote primarily for his educated contemporaries in England and his experimentation with higher and lower styles, displaying his versatility, reflects this.

A comparison with Il Teseida also reveals how drastically Chaucer changed the characters of Palemon and Arcite and their relationship. As Minnis notes, in Il Teseida, Palemon “continually insists on fighting a reluctant Arcita,” who “acts reasonably and with superhuman patience towards the cousin who cannot control his passion for the same woman.”[9] Yet, as Salter observes, Chaucer’s lovers are “distinguishable mainly for their allegiance to differing gods.”[10] This shows us that, for Chaucer, it is not the characters themselves that are important, but what they communicate. The key to what it is that they communicate in The Knight’s Tale lies in the cousins’ relationship. In Il Teseida, they do not quarrel over Emilia, but rather “converse, each consoling the other with his words” (Book III).[11] They greet each other “warmly” (Book V)[12] when they are reunited in the grove. Chaucer, however, changes their attitudes completely. In The Knight’s Tale, as soon as the cousins become rivals, they are hostile to one another. Indeed, Palemon tells Arcite, “I am thy mortal foo” (line 878). This demonstrates Chaucer’s, or perhaps the knight’s, interest in the destructive quality of love, and how it makes people act out of character. As Theseus says, “Who may been a fool but if he love?” (line 1799)

Theseus himself is a character whose alterations from in Il Teseida to The Knight’s Tale demonstrate Chaucer’s interests. Interestingly, Minnis writes that Chaucer makes Theseus “even more noble than he was in Il Teseida.”[13] Minnis goes on to claim that Theseus in The Knight’s Tale is “a paragon of ethical and political virtue” and “the closest Chaucer ever got to portraying a hero.”[14] In my opinion, Chaucer actually makes Boccaccio’s Theseus less virtuous. For example, Boccaccio’s Theseus gives Palamon and Arcite a room in the palace and everything they need, whilst Chaucer’s Theseus puts them both “in prisoun” (line 1023). Minnis argues that “Theseus’ subsequent generosity to the cousins dispels any doubts that the reader may have concerning his treatment of them.”[15] Chaucer undermines this, however, with his description of the war on Thebes. Its position at the opening of the tale means that it overshadows all that comes after it. Theseus has pity on the widows of Thebes, and yet the reader cannot help but consider that he is indirectly the cause of their grief. The knight is keen to stress that Creon was a “tirant” (961) and deserved his fate (964), but Chaucer is more reluctant to endorse him. Chaucer adds the telling detail of Palemon’s and Arcite’s being discovered by pillagers, not by the Greeks looking for their dead, as in Boccaccio’s version. There is perhaps a touch of irony is calling him “worthy” Theseus, and Chaucer may be making a wider comment on war-mongering in general.

Chaucer’s treatment of Emilia, when compared with Boccaccio’s, can also be seen to reveal something about his attitude to women. Boccaccio’s Emilia is a vibrant character; in Minnis’ words, she has “a positive and quite forceful personality.”[16] Salter describes her as an “ideal” and “innocently vain.” [17] Emilia’s vanity, though, is not entirely innocent: “although she was a maiden as yet unready for love’s fulfillment, she was nonetheless aware of what it implied.” (Book III) Emilia embraces this: “she rejoiced in being found attractive and thought herself lovelier and made herself look fairer.” (Book III) This sexual awakening of sorts is entirely omitted in Chaucer, as is most else concerning Emilia’s feelings and thoughts. As Salter writes, “Chaucer’s Emelye exists only to provide the immediate cause of the lovers’ rivalry. We know little of her feelings and her reactions to the melodramatic scenes in which she is involved; even her physical beauty is conveyed distantly to us, in courtly images.”[18] This is not to say that Chaucer is uninterested in women – The Wife of Bath’s and other Canterbury Tales are proof to the contrary – but it once again shows that, in Chaucer’s version of this particular story, character is secondary to plot and to wider commentary.

The final aspect of The Knight’s Tale emphasised by a reading of Il Teseida is the care taken by Chaucer to ensure a happy ending, or at least a reasonably happy one. This, again, is partly a question of genre: the element of tragedy in the story is far more suitable to Boccaccio’s Classical epic than Chaucer’s courtly romance. Chaucer is keen to soften the blow of Arcite’s death, in spite of his added description of Arcite’s illness, and to make Emilia’s remarriage to Palemon more palatable. Chaucer omits Emilia’s marriage to Arcite; he delays Palemon and Emilia’s marriage for a decent mourning period; he removes Palemon’s and Emilia’s qualms; and he has Palamon see Emilia first rather than Arcite, thus removing the latter’s prior claim on her. Additionally, as Minnis writes, “Boccaccio had regarded Arcita as being far superior to Palemon, so that his loss of life and of Emilia was all the more tragic…. By contrast, in The Knight’s Tale Arcite and Palamon are of equal merit; there is no suggestion that one deserves Emelye more than the other.”[19] Chaucer’s version, although it has serious overtones, is altogether more lighthearted, and instead of lamenting Arcite excessively, the reader is encouraged to see that, as Minnis says, “one man’s downfall is another’s opportunity.”[20]

In conclusion, then, Chaucer’s choice of style and his editing of Boccaccio’s characters reveal a great deal about his own motives and interests. However, this essay is by no means a complete list of alterations made by Chaucer to Il Teseida, or a full exploration of what they tell us. For example, Chaucer also took up Boccaccio’s theme of fate and made it his own, and altered the role of the gods in the story to suit his own ends. Chaucer’s imagination would not have let him assume the role of mere translator, and he clearly invested much of himself in his reworking of Arcite’s and Palemon’s story.


Benson, L. D. (ed.) The Riverside Chaucer, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987)
Brewer, D. S. Chaucer, (London: Longmans, 1953).
Burrow, J. A. Medieval Writers and their Work, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)
Havely, N. Chaucer’s Boccaccio, (Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer Ltd., 1980).
Minnis, A. J. Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity, (Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer Ltd., 1982).
Salter, E. Chaucer: The Knight’s Tale and The Clerk’s Tale, (London: Edward Arnold, 1962).
Ward, A. W. Chaucer, (London: Macmillan and Co., 1879).
[1] J. A. Burrow, Medieval Writers and their Work, p. 57.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] J. A. Burrow, Medieval Writers and their Work, p. 57-8.
[5] Elizabeth Salter, Chaucer: The Knight’s Tale and the Clerk’s Tale, p.10.
[6] J. A. Burrow, Medieval Writers and their Work, p. 58.
[7] A. W. Ward, Chaucer, p.122
[8] J. A. Burrow, Medieval Writers and their Work, p. 78.
[9] A. J. Minnis, Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity, p.111.
[10] Elizabeth Salter, Chaucer: The Knight’s Tale and the Clerk’s Tale, p.10.
[11] N. Havely, Chaucer’s Boccaccio, p.114.
[12] N. Havely, Chaucer’s Boccaccio, p.119.
[13] A. J. Minnis, Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity, p.109.
[14] A. J. Minnis, Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity, p.121.
[15] A. J. Minnis, Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity, p.122.
[16] A. J. Minnis, Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity, p.131.
[17] Elizabeth Salter, Chaucer: The Knight’s Tale and the Clerk’s Tale, p.11.
[18] Ibid.
[19] A. J. Minnis, Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity, p.28.
[20] Ibid.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

The Sound of Silence

Sorry this place has been as dead as a dead thing lately. My life has been consumed by... well, real life. Shock horror. I'll be back at some point.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Inner Libraries

"I think we internalise the poems we have by heart and they operate by osmosis to influence the writers we become. I favor the iambic tetrameter line, instilled in me by James Russell Lowell and sharpened by my later infatuation with Auden. Mostly, though, I am grateful for those old-fashioned teachers who revered the poems of a bygone era and by exacting from us twenty-odd lines a week gave us an inner library to draw on for the rest of our lives."
~ Maxine Kumin

I agree with this statement wholeheartedly. My English teacher, a wonderful woman, used to give us merit points for memorising set passages. One which has remained with me is Jacques' Seven Ages of Man from As You Like It. It's actually one of my favourite Shakespeare passages now. I still know every word, seven years later, and I recite it to myself when I have to have injections or fillings in my teeth. It's incredibly effective at taking one's mind off things.

I would argue, though, that a piece doesn't have to be memorised in order to influence our writing hugely. In my early teens I was a bit of a stereotype and I carried a battered copy of Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath with me everywhere I went. Perhaps it would not be an exaggeration to say that those poems saved my life. I read those poems over and over, to the point that I have scraps memorised unintentionally, but I never set down and learnt them. And yet, they have been hugely influential.

Another poet who has influenced my writing greatly without my sitting down and memorising any of her work is Carol Ann Duffy. My favourite poem of hers is called The Laughter of Stafford Girls' High. It's rare for me to get so absorbed in such a long poem: I find that reading poetry requires immense concentration, so intense, in fact, that I can't sustain it for long and so tend to only read short poems! Stafford Girls' High is addictive, though - it carries you along. It's the rhythm especially, the same rhythm which causes me to memorise bits unintentionally. Lines like: "How do you expect to become the finest of England's mothers and daughters and wives after this morning's assembly's abysmal affair?" or "Bad words ran in her head like mice."

Ah, Duffy. Let us all pay homage, and let the little children bring flowers.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Stop! Sin!

I'm particularly enjoying this blog at the moment, and I'm also enjoying stealing the owner's posts (his pointy-outy-look-at-this posts, not his own writing, because that would be naughty) for my blog. I was really tickled by the flowchart he posted, from James A. Brundage's book Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. I couldn't let you miss out. This supposedly lets you know when/if it's safe (theologically speaking) for you to have sex in the Middle Ages. Here's the link to the Flickr post.

Feeling randy? Yes: continue. No: Stop! Sin!
Are you married? Yes: continue. No: Stop! Sin!
Is this your wife? Yes: continue. No: Stop! Sin!
Married more than three days? Yes: continue. No: Stop! Sin!
Is wife menstruating? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is wife pregnant? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is wife nursing a child? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it Lent? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it Advent? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it Whitsun week? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it Easter week? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it any other feast day? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it a fast day? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it Sunday? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it Wednesday? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it Friday? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it Saturday? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it daylight? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Are you naked? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Are you in church? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Do you want a child? No: Stop! Sin! Yes: GO AHEAD! But be careful: No fondling! No lewd kisses! No oral sex! No strange positions! Only once! Try not to enjoy it! Good luck! And wash afterwards!